Erie Times News
Unable to win the battle of ideas, Pa. Republicans are damaging the state constitution
Amending the Constitution of the United States, which has happened only 17 times since the Bill of Rights was enacted in 1791, is a meticulous process with various hurdles designed to ensure any amendment is carefully considered. Amending the Pennsylvania Constitution, on the other hand, is not as arduous.
Since the latest version of the Pennsylvania Constitution was adopted in 1968, it has been amended 46 times. Republicans in the General Assembly are anxious to add on to that number, as they continue to plot how to assert their will upon residents of the commonwealth when the party controls only one of the three branches of government.
The purpose of the Pennsylvania Constitution is to establish the rights and responsibilities of the citizens of the commonwealth and to establish how its governmental and judicial systems will operate.
The process of amending the Pennsylvania Constitution is relatively straightforward and seems, at first glance, to be an exercise in democracy. An amendment must be approved by majorities in both houses of the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions. If this happens, the proposed amendment is then placed on the ballot in the next statewide election and is enacted if a majority of the voters in that election approve of it.
The Republican majority in the current General Assembly has increasingly come to view the amendment process as a way to avoid the objections of Gov. Tom Wolf to their policy preferences. As of early January 2022, Wolf has vetoed 54 bills passed by the General Assembly.
In frustration, Republicans have begun to propose constitutional amendments, which bypass the need for the signature of the governor, in order to get their policies enacted — and to increase the political power of the legislative branch of government.
This could be viewed as the General Assembly taking their case for enactment of their policies to the people of the commonwealth. But there are flaws in the process which Republicans are exploiting. The first flaw is the nature of the General Assembly.
Over and over the Republican majority makes the claim they are the true representatives of the “people of Pennsylvania.” A basic look at election results tells a different story.
The governor was elected by votes of all Pennsylvanians. He received hundreds of thousands more votes than Republican candidates for either the state House or state Senate, but Republicans gained the majority of seats in the General Assembly because of how the districts in which they ran for office were constructed.
Given this, shouldn’t it be expected if more Pennsylvanians voted for the governor than Republicans in the General Assembly a vote on a constitutional amendment opposed by the governor but supported by Republicans would fail? This is the second flaw in the process Republicans are taking advantage of.
Constitutional amendments are voted on by the people of Pennsylvania at the next statewide election after the amendment is passed the second time. Republicans in the General Assembly have scheduled votes to ensure constitutional amendments will be voted on in odd-year primary elections.
Odd-year primaries are the statewide elections featuring the lowest turnout of voters, and voters who are not registered as either Democrats or Republicans rarely have opportunities to vote for candidates.
This makes it the perfect election for Republicans to place constitutional amendments on the ballot. Statistically, Republicans are more likely to vote in primary elections, and it is no coincidence that Republican-sponsored constitutional amendments were adopted in May of 2021, when voters chose candidates for school boards, judicial positions, and local races.
In their latest scheme, Republicans are turning toward a constitutional amendment strategy to change the process of reapportionment for General Assembly districts.
The state House passed a proposed amendment which would eliminate the current redistricting commission and replace it with a new “citizens” commission, with the majority of members appointed by partisan legislators.
The key aspect of this proposal, however, is the new commission must pass their proposal by a two-thirds majority. If it fails to do so, the General Assembly may draw its own maps, perpetuating the current partisan makeup in the Legislature.
Republicans face a changing demographic landscape in Pennsylvania. The legislative redistricting commission’s proposed map threatens their majority in the state House (and their ability to pass constitutional amendments).
Thus, their loud, hysterical complaints about the map and threat to sue about the process. Their hope, of course, is to stall the process and force the 2022 elections to be run in the current legislative districts, in which Republicans have a distinct advantage.
Such a result could ensure a Republican majority for the 2023-24 session, enabling them to pass their constitutional amendment, place it on the 2023 primary ballot, and have it approved by a small percentage of Pennsylvania voters, resulting in their perpetual control of the redistricting process.
Opinion contributor Ray E. Landis writes about the issues important to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page, where this column was first published.
Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence.